Always have been, always will be—but I’ve learned to live with it.
The barista doesn’t know that, though. She just thinks the milk steamer on her espresso machine stopped working as soon as I walked up to the counter.
“Sorry.” Her eyebrows arch. “It’s never done this before.” She glances at the door marked ‘Staff Only’ behind her, chewing her lip. I wonder if her manager is a hardass.
I shake my head. “It’s fine. Forget about the lattes. I’ll just have two black coffees.”
“I’ll refund you.”
I smile. “Don’t worry about it.” I’m not going to punish her just because I’m perpetually unlucky.
Her shoulders relax a bit. She gives me a shy smile. “Okay—thanks.”
I take the two coffees to the table where my aunt, Theresa, is waiting. She nods her chin toward the machine, which magically started working again for the next customer.
“It’s the curse.”
Auntie T rolls her eyes. “Of course it is. You know there’s no curse, right?”
“Try living a day in my shoes and then tell me there’s no curse. This morning, I slipped on a banana peel in my kitchen. A banana peel! I don’t even eat bananas! Unless this is live-action Mario Kart, that shouldn’t happen to a regular person.”
“Maybe you’re just clumsy,” she grins, “and isn’t your roommate an athlete? Athletes eat bananas, don’t they?”
I huff, sinking down into the chair across from her. The curse is real, and it sabotages me every day. Don’t even ask me about my love life—that’s in the Oxford English Dictionary under ‘disaster.’
My roommate, Elle, would tell you otherwise—but she thinks just because I have a healthy sex life, it means I’m good at dating. I’m not. I’ve never had a relationship last more than a couple of weeks.
“How was the Prince’s Ball, honey?” my aunt asks, bringing her coffee cup to her lips. With an oversized leopard-print faux-fur jacket and long crimson nails, she doesn’t exactly look like she belongs in the campus café.
I can’t meet her eye. I suck at lying—so, I just tell the truth. “I didn’t go.”
“What? But we received the thank you note from Farcliff Castle. They only send those out if you attend.”
I scrunch my napkin between my fingers and take a deep breath. “My roommate went instead of me.”
“Why would she do that?” Theresa’s painted nails fly to her chest and her bright red lips drop open. She frowns, as if Elle stole my invitation from me.
Elle didn’t steal anything from me. I was the one who convinced her to take my place—and not very easily. She had no desire to go, but I’m glad she did. That’s how she met Prince Charlie.
“I didn’t want to go, Auntie T. You know how I feel about castles and crowds.”
Theresa’s eyebrow arches, and she looks me up and down. “First of all, you know I don’t like it when you call me Auntie. It ages me.”
My lips tug into a small smile.
Theresa continues: “Second of all, why would you pass up the chance to go to the Prince’s Ball? It only happens once every generation! Are you insane?”
“I didn’t feel comfortable going up to the castle.”
Theresa tuts, shaking her head. “I blame your mother for this. She scared you away from your own heritage. Why should a Raventhal daughter be afraid of meeting the royal family? It’s all this talk about a stupid curse. No one should put those thoughts into a young child’s head.”
“She’s right, though. It’s not safe for me there.”
Theresa pinches her lips and drums her fingernails on the table. She tilts her head, watching me. “If you’re so scared of the castle, why—of all the places where you could study organic chemistry—did you choose Farcliff University?”
“I study microbiology, not organic chemistry.”
“I thought you said…”
“That was just one of my classes last semester.”
She waves a dismissive hand. “Whatever. You’re avoiding the question. Why come here? With your grades, you could have studied anywhere—yet you come to the one place that terrifies you.” My aunt purses her lips. “It doesn’t make sense for you to come here if you’re just going to avoid the royal family. You live in a dumpy house on the edge of Grimdale, and you pretend your last name is Smith. You’re a Raventhal, Dahlia. You belong up at the castle with the rest of them—so why avoid it?”
I take a sip of coffee and avoid her eyes again. She’s right. I live near the edge of the poorer end of the Kingdom called Grimdale—hardly the typical neighborhood for a Raventhal to live. However, it’s a perfectly acceptable place for a girl called Smith to live while she studies at Farcliff University.
Growing up, I was hidden away in the forests of the Rocky Mountains. I lived with my three aunts, who served as guardians while my parents lived in exile. I wasn’t even told that I was originally from Farcliff until my sixteenth birthday. My parents would come and visit me twice a year, and my mother was the one who’d explained that I’d been cursed as a small baby.
That’s why they took me away from Farcliff—to keep me safe from the curse. That’s what my mother said, at least. My aunts would shake their heads and tell her to stop putting silly superstitions into my head.
I know how crazy it sounds, but that’s the kind of thing that stays with you. Now I’m supposed to be taking part in court life as if none of that ever happened? As if I haven’t been told that going to the castle will kill me?
I sigh. “I don’t know. I feel like an imposter. This is where I was born, but I was shipped away from Farcliff when I was a toddler. I never got to see the Raventhal home. Growing up with you, Aunt Helen, and Aunt Margie was…”
I trail off, lost in my own thoughts.
“It was what?” Theresa’s voice has an edge to it.
I take a deep breath. “It was wonderful. I loved growing up in the wild. I loved being surrounded by nature and birds—even if being allergic to pollen, and bees, and insect bites isn’t exactly convenient in the middle of the wilderness. Even so, it was peaceful. But… I don’t know who I am, Theresa. All of a sudden, when I turned sixteen, you told me I was a Raventhal and that I belonged in the Farcliff Court. I just want…” I sigh, shrugging. “I don’t know what I want.”
I sip my coffee as Theresa studies me. When she doesn’t say anything, I know she wants me to keep talking.
“Whenever I see Mom, she always tells me they’re dangerous at court. And then you’re telling me the opposite—pushing me toward it, telling me it’s fine. Which is it? Is it safe, or not safe? Am I cursed, or not cursed?”
Theresa puts her hand over mine. Her face softens as she gently squeezes my fingers. “Your mother has her own ideas. I’m just trying to encourage you to be the Lady you were born to be. I want you to reach your full potential, Dahlia.”
I take a deep breath. “I know Mom has always been paranoid about the Farcliff royal family. I don’t want to live in fear like she does.”
“So, why are you running away from it? Why not go up to the castle when you’re invited?”
“It scares me. What happened with Mom…”
“What happened with your mother was unfortunate, but I don’t know if it was really as bad as she thought. It was more of a scandal in the press than anything truly dangerous.”
“You mean her exile?” I stare at my aunt and take a deep breath. “What exactly happened with her? All I know is that the Queen died, and Mom started claiming she’d been murdered—and then she was sent away. Whenever I ask her about it, she clams up.”
Now, it’s Theresa’s turn to avoid my gaze. She stares out of the window at the stream of students walking toward their classes. “That’s more or less what happened,” she says.
“More or less? What does that mean?”
My aunt sighs. “It’s not for me to tell, munchkin.”
“It was a long time ago, Dahlia. It doesn’t matter anymore.”
Frustration builds inside me until I feel like I’m going to explode. This happens every time I try to find out about the past. Whether I ask my aunts or my parents, I always get the same answer. It’s in the past. I’m not old enough. It’s not for them to tell.
Well, whose story is it to tell? How am I supposed to know who to trust in Farcliff if I don’t know what happened or why my mother was exiled? She used to be the Queen’s best friend—now, I can’t even ask anyone why that changed.
“The King’s sister was spearheading the campaign to have your mother exiled,” Theresa explains. She pinches her lips together and her lipstick creases. Her eyes tighten as she stares at me, and I hold my breath. No one has ever said anything about this to me before.
“The King’s sister?”
“Lady Malerie.” Theresa sighs. “She never liked your mother. I think Mal was insulted that the Queen asked your mother to be a bridesmaid and not her. Said she was the King’s sister, and Tabitha Raventhal was a nobody. Very easily offended, that woman.” Theresa tuts her lips and shakes her head. “Lots of drama surrounding her.”
“I never heard about this.”
“No,” Theresa answers without explanation.
“So… Exiling Mom was payback? For not being asked to be a bridesmaid?”
“The bridesmaid thing started it all… And then there was Prince Charlie’s christening. Phew! Don’t get me started on that.” Theresa shakes her head. “When Tabitha was named godmother instead of Lady Malerie? Well, all hell broke loose.”
My heart thumps. No one has ever been this open with me before. I lean forward. “What happened at Charlie’s christening?”
My question seems to snap Theresa out of her own thoughts. She looks at me, wide-eyed, and inhales sharply. She claps her hands together and shakes her head. “What are we doing, talking about things that don’t matter? I’m here to take you out to lunch! We should be pampering ourselves, not talking about silly drama from the past.”
“What if I want to talk about silly drama?”
“Well, that may be, but we have some self-care to attend to. Come on, I didn’t come all the way from Colorado to visit my darling niece just to spend the whole time sitting in a cramped coffee shop. I’ve made us an appointment with Farcliff’s best hairdresser. Your colors need some refreshing, and I need a blowout.”
I run my hands through my multicolored strands and take a deep breath. I can tell by the look on Theresa’s face that I won’t be getting any more information out of her today.
Besides, my hair is dyed a rainbow of pastel colors, and Theresa is right—it does need a refresh. Sighing, I give in. She told me something, at least. I can look into Lady Malerie, the King’s sister. Maybe that will give me some clues as to where I come from, why my family was thrown out of Farcliff, and where this whole idea of a curse came from.
Aunt Theresa throws her arm around my shoulders and leads me out of the café just as my two other aunts, Helen and Margie, come screeching down the street in my orange Jeep. Helen has a bright blue headscarf on, paired with oversized glasses, and Margie’s long mane of silver hair whips wildly around her head. They whoop and holler toward us as everyone on the street turns to stare.
Theresa tugs me toward the Jeep and I let a smile slide over my lips. My aunts taught me to live a loud, happy, colorful life. They were the best guardians I could have asked for—but I can’t keep shying away from the questions that plague me. I can’t keep living in fear of a curse that might not even exist.
I need to know where I come from and what happened with my family all those years ago.